“The Highest Mitzvah of All!”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Emor, the Torah delineates the strict rules for maintaining the absolute purity of the priestly family. The Torah, in Leviticus 21:1, states that G-d told Moses to speak to the priests, the sons of Aaron, and to say to them: “L’nefesh lo yeetam’ah b’ahmav,” None of you [priests] shall contaminate himself to a dead person among his people.

The verses that follow explain that a regular priest may defile himself only to his closest relatives: mother, father, son, daughter, brother, and his virgin sister who is unmarried. Through exegesis, we learn that a priest may also care for his deceased wife. In Leviticus 21:11, we learn that in contrast to a regular priest, the High Priest must always remain holy and may not defile himself to any dead body…even to his father or his mother.

We have suggested in our previous parasha studies (Emor 5765-2005 and Emor 5762-2002), that because of the “utopian ideal” represented by the priesthood, the Kohanim (priests) must limit their exposure to death, and may not serve publicly if they are disabled or have any prominent physical deformity.

Aside from their immediate family members, there is one exception to the rule of when regular priests, and even a High Priest, may defile themselves. This exception, for “Met Mitzvah“–an abandoned body, is derived from the Midrash Torat Kohanim (Parshasa 1:3). When interpreting the verse in Leviticus 21:1, “Lo yeetam’ah b’ahmav,” a priest may not become impure among his people, Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, 1040-1105, foremost commentator on the Bible) cites the Midrash and explains that while the dead person is “among his people,” the priest may not defile himself; however, for an abandoned “Met Mitzvah,” he may defile himself. The commentaries on Rashi further explain that the apparently superfluous phrase, “among his people,” implies that the prohibition found in our verse applies only to a dead person who has other people to attend to his burial. If, however, there is no one else to care for the abandoned body, then the priest is required to defile himself.

The Bet Yosef (Commentary by Rabbi Joseph Caro, 1488-1575, on the law code Arba’ah Turim)in Yoreh Dayah 374:3, cites Nachmanides (Torat Ha’adam p. 129) and the Rosh (Hilchot Tum’ah, Laws of Impurity, chapter 2) who define a “Met Mitzvah” as a deceased body that has been found on an (untraveled) road or in a gentile city where there is no one to bury the body. Additionally, in the place where the body has been found there is no one Jewish to call upon who would respond and be able to properly care for the interment. Under such circumstances, the priest is forbidden to move the deceased or leave the deceased’s side, even to go into a city to bring a proper burial society who would care for the deceased. Instead, the priest must defile himself and personally perform the burial.

The Babylonian Talmud, in tractate Megillah 3b, maintains that “Kavod Habriot,” the need to show proper respect to G-d’s human creations, is the mitigating factor behind the unusual devotion that must be shown to an abandoned body. This obligation is so great that it overrides the negative commandment of the Torah prohibiting a priest from being defiled.

The Sifrei in Bamidbar, Piska 26, depicts the obligation toward the deceased in unusually poignant terms. Says the Sifrei: If the High Priest’s parents, mother and father, pass on, the priest may not defile himself. But, if he encounters a “Met Mitzvah,” he must defile himself! If the High Priest was on his way to slaughter the Pascal sacrifice and his brother suddenly passed away, he may not defile himself. But he must defile himself for a “Met Mitzvah!”

Not only does the obligation to care for the “Met Mitzvah” push aside the negative commandment of not being defiled, it even overrides other positive commandments, such as slaughtering the Pascal sacrifice, circumcising one’s son, and studying Torah (Bamidbar Rabbah, parasha 10). The Talmud in Megillah 26b cites Mar Zutra as saying that sacred covers for Torah scrolls that have withered may be used as tachrichim, shrouds, for a “Met Mitzvah,” as this use is regarded as entirely proper disposal (genizah) for the sacred covers. A responsum of the Melamed L’ho’eel (Rabbi David Zvi Hoffmann, leading German Rabbi, 1843-1921), part 1, Orach Chaim, chapter 18, explains that sacred covers may not be used for utilitarian purposes for a living person. But, after death, a person is considered like a Torah scroll, and therefore may be covered with the sacred covers.

The Tur (R’ Yaakov, the son of the Rosh, c.1275-1340, the first codifier to divide the Code of Jewish Law into four Turim–divisions) in Yoreh De’ah, chapter 360, sums up the fundamental importance of caring for the “Met Mitzvah” by saying that, under normal circumstances, rejoicing with a bride and groom takes precedence over burying the dead, when the burial can be performed at a later time. But, the “Met Mitzvah” takes precedence over all, even pushing aside the study of Torah, reading the Megillah, defilement of the priest and the Nazarite, bringing of the Pascal sacrifice and circumcising one’s child. The Tur concludes: “Ayn davar sheh’ko’daym lo b’chol haTorah,” there is absolutely nothing in the entire Torah that takes precedence over the “Met Mitzvah“!

Jews throughout the world begin their prayers each day with a citation from the Mishnah, Peah 1, which lists Judaism’s so-called “immeasurable duties.” These duties include leaving the corners of the field for the poor, donating the first fruits to the Temple, the practice of charity and the study of Torah. A citation from Tractate Shabbat 127a then follows regarding the so-called “eternal duties,” listing those things for which a person enjoys the rewards in this world, while the principal remains for the World to Come: honoring father and mother, deeds of loving-kindness, timely attendance at the house of study morning and evening, hospitality to wayfarers, visiting the sick, dowering the bride, attending to the dead, devotion to prayer, and making peace between man and his fellow. The citation concludes by stating that the study of Torah surpasses them all.

In his richly notated Daily Prayer Book, Rabbi Joseph Hertz explains that attending to the dead is “the most disinterested of all the deeds of loving-kindness, since it shows ultimate reverence to a man’s humanity.” That is why, in large communities, a Chevra Kadisha, a religious burial society, exists to provide for the last rites, to care for the dying and the dead, and to console the mourners.

That the “Met Mitzvah” surpasses them all is evidenced by the fact that during the week preceding Yom Kippur, the High Priest, who has been practicing for weeks and months for the sacred service in the Holy of Holies, must defile himself for the “Met Mitzvah.” This is so, even though the High Priest will not have the requisite seven days to be purified by being sprinkled with the waters of the Red Heifer, and will thus be unable to perform the sacred Yom Kippur atonement service for the people of Israel. Another priest will have to substitute.

Judaism’s concern for the “Met Mitzvah” is a bold reflection of our faith’s uncompromising concern for sanctity of life and for “Kavod Habriot.” It is a dramatic affirmation of Judaism’s regard for G-d’s creations.

May you be blessed.